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Crawling into the snow to keep warm

February 23, 2016

The temperature in the canyon that night was in the 20’s. There was about two feet of snow on the ground. As night fell, we each crawled into the snow to go to sleep. Except for two leaders who had brought a tent. Those of us in the snow felt a little bad for the tenters, there were gonna be cold.

I wondered if I would be. I stared up at the ceiling of frozen snow a few inches above my face. I lay very still. The slightest bump brought down a cascade of ice particles. I had a brand new sleeping bag. It was a birthday present. Maybe an adventure in the snow wasn’t the best place to test it. I shifted my position and got an ear full of snow. I’d dug the ceiling higher but my sleeping pad was 4″ thick and that had cut the distance. Not the place for someone who was claustrophobic. I wasn’t. Well, I hoped not, anyway. 

I had volunteered for this experience. I looked forward to it even. 

A snow cave is exactly what it sounds like; a cave made from snow. You build it. To start, you pile snow about six feet high and ten feet in diameter. I went up with some other leaders and a group of boys to do that last week. I was going to be in my own snow cave. I dug into the snow and piled it up higher and higher. Eventually, my digging got down to the ground, 24″ deep. Then, I started shoveling a path. Always throwing the snow onto my growing pile. 

Six feet is considered a good height for a snow cave. I’m six foot tall. The pile was still smaller than me. More piling. I was trying for an inverted bowl look and I was getting more The Matahorn. The other caves were going to be occupied by two or three boys. Their mounds of snow quickly grew. 

As I worked, I thought about what we were doing. We were going to be in the canyon for a single night. If the snow caves failed (and I wasn’t sure they were 100% safe despite the history that others in our group had with them) we had the vehicles to sleep in. We were 20 minutes from home. Worst case, we could simply loud up the boys and go home. 

Dinner was chili cheese dogs. We picked that meal because it was easy to fix. Later one of the other leaders who had come up to help us mentioned that they always had chili cheese dogs during the snow cave campouts. Our scout troop has a long history of winter camps. This was my first snow cave, but my older boys had been on snow cave campouts in the past. And that was what scared me a little as a leader. 

Several years ago, my boys went on a campout in this same canyon. They built snow caves, not far from where we were right now. However, one boy missed one of the important instructions: don’t get wet. Now, it’s impossible to make a snow cave without getting wet. You are literally digging in the snow. That’s why it’s very important to bring dry clothes.

After piling my snow mound high enough, I started digging it out. You pick a spot at the bottom of the pile and start digging in. The walls should be at least 6″ thick. At that thickness you can see outside light through the walls. Eventually, I had dug far enough in with the shovel that I had to get down on my hands and knees and dig in the hole. Then, I had to start crawling in. Always digging. It’s important to start low and dig up into the cave. During the night, what little heat you generate will rise and warm the upper part of the cave. 

When I completed, my gloves were soaked. My multilayered of pants were soaked, my Gortex coat had lived up to its billing and kept me dry, but I was pretty cold. All the boys were. That’s why we fed them hot chili and hotdogs. And insist that they all change into dry clothes before going to bed. In addition they spread tarps out in the caves and also folded them over their sleeping bags. Cold is the enemy and wet leads to cold. 

During the previous campout, one boy hadn’t brought dry clothes. He didn’t put a tarp under his sleeping bag. He was tired. He was cold. And he was wet. And then he went to bed. Several hours later my son, who was sharing a cave with this boy heard him leave the cave. My son was warm and dry in his bag. He didn’t want to get up. The boy didn’t come back. Eventually my son got worried and braved the cold. As he climbed out of the tunnel he started looking for his friend. Eventually he found him wandering barefoot in the snow. 

Hypothermia is when you body gets so cold that is doesn’t have the ability to warm itself back up. It’s a serious condition that can quickly lead to death. It’s brought on by cold and wet. Worse still, hypothermia makes you stupid. Literally, you cannot think straight. This boy was well into the hypothermia stage. My son got his friend steered to where the leaders were sleeping. Waking them up, they quickly bundled up the boy and rushed him back down the canyon. 

It was a close thing. The boy had frostbite on his feet.But, he lived. As a leader, it’s your worst nightmare. 

And I had two boys on this campout. And I was entrusted with nine other boys. The leaders and I all checked and double checked the boys. We had three boys in each cave. We reminded them of the story from years ago. 

The actual night in the cave wasn’t as bad as I feared. Once I learned to not touch the ceiling and my sleeping bag warmed up, I was very comfortable. One of thus leaders got up during the night to check. The morning dawned cold with all boys accounted for. 

It’s a good skill to have. There are cases of hikers or snowmobiles getting stuck in Utah’s backcountry and having to build a snow cave to survive. I’m not sure they all have chilli cheese dogs prior to going, but it would probably help. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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One Comment
  1. Snow caves are wonderful and so much warmer than tents, having done this at a Scouting site north of Montreal. At the time I was the only one who did the tunnel vs the covered trench technique the rest of the troupe was doing. Glad you’ve had the experience.

    A couple of typos snuck in. End of 1st paragraph, “there/they were gonna be cold.” and end of paragraph after pictures “simply loud/load up the boys” unless you really planned to be very noisy.

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